Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Color of Sport

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, February 3, 2005:

Why does a fireman wear red suspenders? Every kid knows the answer: to hold his pants up. But the better question for curious adults may be why he wears red at all, or why brides wear white and kings wear purple. Color speaks a secret language that our generation hears as white noise, an indistinct hum that we decipher unconsciously. The traces of these ancient meanings have come down to us most clearly in sport, which retained some of the mystical, hierarchical, and military trappings of old, even as society advanced beyond the guild, the village, and the governing church. In the colorful pageant of sport we may see rulers and revolutionaries, capitalists and tradesmen, even valorous firemen and, if not brides, baseball annies.

While the proliferation of sports teams over the past fifty years has created some startling color choices in uniforms and logos (what’s with those Florida boys?), even these must be the product of some thought process, no matter how dubious. The Florida Marlins’ hideous teal surely is meant to represent Miami waterways, as the Colorado Rockies’ purple signals the nearby mountains’ majesty. The New York Mets’ blue and orange echo the official colors of the 1939 World’s Fair as well as the tinted gowns of the damsels Liberty and Justice, respectively, on the New York State Seal. There are animal associations (Lions, Tigers, Bears, and more), but team colors are not always consonant with life in the wild. And there are frontier motifs (49ers, Spurs, Mavericks) and ethnic lampoons (Indians, Braves ... don’t get me started).

But we must start our story somewhere, and Baltimore seems as good a place as any. Its revered football team, the Colts (colors: blue and white) hightailed it out of town for Indianapolis in 1984, leaving fans without the NFL until the Cleveland Browns (brown and orange) left the shores of Lake Erie for those along Chesapeake Bay. This was the second brown-and-orange team to come to Baltimore, as baseball’s Browns had arrived from St. Louis in 1954. Those Browns dropped their name in transit, becoming the Orioles, a venerable name in the city’s baseball history. The oriole (Icterus galbula) also happened to be the official state bird, in part because its yellow-and black coloration matched that in the shield of Sir George Calvert (Lord Baltimore) and was further memorialized in the state flag. (Yes, I know the ball club’s featured bird is orange and black, but John James Audubon’s rendition of the Oriole had been yellow and black, matching the colors of the western Maryland Bullock’s Oriole; the two variants have since thoroughly interbred, and are now combined in a single species ... see what happens when you get me started?)

Unlike baseball’s St. Louis Browns, a succession of teams who were named for the color of their stockings, football’s Cleveland Browns were named for their founder and genius coach Paul Brown. Even if Baltimore now had their team, Cleveland’s football fans sued to keep the name; this seemingly petulant move proved practical in 1999 when the league granted the city an expansion franchise, which promptly dusted off the old name and colors. Meanwhile Baltimore, compelled to find a new name and colors for its freshly seduced Browns, launched them as the Ravens, honoring the city’s other famous bird.

But rather than duplicate the colors of the baseball Orioles, the Ravens’ management went for a black-and-purple scheme unimagined by Poe, and yet not without historical substance. To be “born to the purple” was to proceed from royal lineage, and certainly the state of Maryland fits the bill. Moreover, it is the only state whose flag is marked by heraldic symbols, and its official sport is neither football nor baseball but ... jousting. Purple was the regal color because it was the most expensive dye to produce, from biblical times until the mid-1850s, when the aniline (synthetic) dying process came into being. Purple (“purpur”) was extracted from the marine gastropod mollusk “murex”, also called Purpurschnecke (purple-snail). So, two cheers for Ravens management.

When Baltimore’s first professional baseball team took to the field in 1872 they wore Lord Baltimore’s colors of yellow (heavy silk shirts) and black (flowing pantaloons), striking such a figure of fun that they were called not the Orioles but the Canaries. Indeed, by the following season that epithet had become the club’s de facto nickname. Every other team in the National Association featured the more discreet embellishments that flowed from the original American team sports uniform, that of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. Many of the gentlemen who founded that organization in 1845 were volunteer firemen, and the fealty and pride they felt for their fire companies gave them a common sense of purpose on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, where they were eventually engaged by other sturdy “base ballists” playing under their own sedate colors.

As volunteer firemen, the men who would become Knickerbockers might have adopted for their ball play the fire company’s classic red shirt with a shield or dickey on which the number of his company was embroidered in muslin figures; the magic numerals fixed the men’s identity beyond a doubt and gave them a sense of belonging. These jaunty uniforms bound men to their comrades in united purpose, just as the common color of medieval guildsmen might indicate their craft. Fireman’s red was a prestigious color because, like purple, it signified blood, with its connotations of bravery, sacrifice, and passion. In medieval times crimson and scarlet (the latter name actually derived from an expensive cloth that might be dyed any color) were, like purple, beyond the reach of the peasantry. The word crimson comes from the Sanskrit krmi-ja, a dye mistakenly believed to be produced from a worm (the kermes was actually an insect).

While the fire laddies’ garb formed the prototype for early baseball uniforms (and arguably those of today), the Knicks’ earliest mandated ensemble (1849) consisted of blue woollen pantaloons, white flannel shirt, and chip (straw) hat. While blue and white remained the costume of the club until it disbanded in 1882, the straw hats were replaced by blue mohair caps in 1855. Oddly, the Knickerbockers always wore pants, never knickerbockers (knickers, knee breeches), even after Cincinnati innovated its calf-exposing, lady-thrilling red stockings in 1867. Soon almost all baseball teams in the 19th century went for the “manly display” and many derived their enduring names from the color of their stockings (Cincinnati Reds; Chicago Whites; New York (Mutual) Greens; Hartford Dark Blues; Providence Grays; St. Louis Cardinals; etc.).

Baseball in the 1860s was dominated by patriotic color schemes of white (symbolizing peace, purity, innocence) and blue (freedom, constancy, justice), with red as the accent color for caps or the cord trim of the pants, which were often cut wide in the style of the French Colonial Zouaves, in sympathy with their exotic mission in Algeria. Furthermore, this red-white-blue combination continued to echo the colors of other nations born in revolt.

Even today, of 192 national flags, these three colors constitute the flags of 30 nations, more than any other color or combination.However, as former colonies have attained independence since the end of World War II, new national color combinations have arisen, and these have worked their way into 21st-century sport. Red, white, and blue as color choices for national flags have declined from their post-WW I heights, and yellow has shown an overall increase from 26 percent in 1917 to 43 percent currently. The use of black, orange, and green have shown constant increases, green appearing on 16 percent of the flags in 1917 and 42 percent today. Brown and yellow continue to express few national aspirations as the former is a symbol of humility (monks’ habits, for example), while the latter has a long association with cowardice and exclusionary marking. Yellow patches (round for Jews, crescent for Muslims) have been used to identify those “not on the team.” In the Nazi era, a pink patch marked a homosexual for persecution.

Baseball uniforms of the 1870s and ’80s erupted into a rainbow owing nothing to national aspiration or the heraldic tradition of few but intense colors. Skullcaps of different colors by position played (1876 Chicago White Stockings, in what a reporter termed a “Dutch bed of tulips”), striped silk jerseys (all major-league teams in 1882), and blood-red flannel uniforms, top and bottom (Louisville, 1888) made baseball players feel like theater folk, prisoners, or “fancy men.” Codpieces and pigeon-breast plates might have been next, but a relatively somber palette returned in the ensuing decades, as stripes and checks were displayed in faint motifs in the uniforms of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants.

But flamboyance and color have certainly returned with a vengeance since the disco days of the 1970s. With the digital revolution making thousands of new colors spring into life, the meat-and-potatoes basics of the analog color set began to seem awfully tame. Why do blue and gold when you can specify “Pantone Color 14-4002, Wind Chime” (whatever that looks like). Martha Stewart (recently decked out in heraldic orange, not creamsicle tangerine) presents an imagistic palette of 416 colors that reads like a diner menu (“succulent, farm-fresh tomatoes”) yet has the vapory lure of perfume advertising. Imagine going to a ballgame and seeing the New York Flauberts, outfitted in Caen Stone, Rosedust, and Light French Gray, square off against the Boston Brahmins, robed in Acanthus, Aristocrat Peach, and Buckram Binding. (These are real Martha colors.)

So what is the color of sport? Pastel, tincture, gradient ... or the bold colors and noble metals of yore? Whatever the value or the shade, it says here that the color of sport is green — and not for the reasons you think, bilious reader. Green may indeed be the color of money, which is what defines professional play. Or envy. But even professionals love the game, which makes them, at heart, amateurs who get paid (from Andrew Marvell’s The Garden: “How vainly men themselves amaze/ To win the palm, the oak, or bays...”) For the player as it is for the fan, green is the color of spring, of baseball, of hope.

--John Thorn


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating, but let's not forget the Arizona-nee-St. Louis-nee Chicaco Cardinals who started with "faded red" jerseys that were called "Cardinal red" by the owner. Today, their symbol is a cardinal even though the origin of the name was the color, not the bird.

6:40 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Interesting point you've made, Anon. In the McCarthy-HUAC 1950s the management of the Cincinnati Reds, fearful that no one recalled any longer that the team's name came from the color of their stockings, rechristened themselvs as the Redlegs. Fans breathed a sigh of relief to learn that no trade of Kluszewski for Khrushchev was in the works after all.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Mets colors actually come from Dodger Blue and Giant Orange, two National league teams that left NY and created the opportunity for the Mets to be created. The use of both colors was seen an gesture to unite jilted Giant and Dodger fans behind one team.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Trish Stratus said...

This is a very interesting article mate. I love reading it!

5:19 PM  

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